Dr Death takes on a suicide mission... and insists his message is all about life

His books have been banned in his native Australia and his suicide workshops boycotted, Sarah Freeman speaks to Philip Nitschke, alias Dr Death

It doesn’t take long for Dr Philip Nitschke to set up for one of his suicide workshops. There’s a computer, a projector, a couple of boxes of leaflets and one large purple banner which proclaims, “a peaceful death is everybody’s right”.

Most of it fits inside a couple of small suitcases – when venues have a habit of cancelling at the last minute, you quickly learn the benefits of being mobile. It was back in the late 1990s that Dr Nitschke founded the pro-euthanasia organisation Exit International and pretty much ever since he has been known in some circles Dr Death.

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It’s a nickname not without justification. Back in his native Darwin, he was part of a successful campaign to legalise euthanasia in Australia’s Northern Territory and by the time it was overturned nine months later, he had helped four people to die.

The machine which delivered the fatal injection is now on display next to a John Logie Baird television at the British Science Museum, but Dr Nitschke wasn’t content to be consigned to history. Instead, he decided to write two practical guides to suicide and along with his wife Dr Fiona Stewart, he now spends much of the year on the road delivering seminars and workshops on his specialist subject.

In York, the first time he has been to the city, there is no obvious sign of protest, although he’s not managed to evade the Dr Death tag entirely. When his visit was first announced various clergy and pro-life supporters once again called for a boycott, but after almost 15 years as the euthanasia lobby’s most high profile proponents such opposition comes with the territory.

“With an issue as fiercely debated as this you are always going to get a bit of name calling. Does it bother me? Not really. People say I am fanatical, but the only question I ask is, is it wise for every elderly or ill adult to learn how they could peacefully and reliably end their lives at the time of their choosing? I think so and that’s why I do what I do.”

Most of the 50 or so who gathered in York’s Priory Street Centre yesterday were over 70, but not exclusively. Some came because they are already living with serious illness, others were worried about sick relatives and others were simply curious.

While suicide itself is legal, assisting someone of taking their own life carries a penalty of up to 14 years in prison. Most mercy killings are treated sympathetically by judges, but there are no guarantees and of Dr Nitschke sees it as his mission to identify the loopholes.

His workshops detail the most effective drugs and where to buy them. Most are no longer available in Britain, but can be sourced abroad and for $80 Exit International will also sell you a testing kit to ensure it is the correct strength. During the seminar, Dr Nitschke also provides a run down of the gases which can’t be detected in postmortems and shows footage of a nurse showing how to create the perfect airtight bag.

It’s this Blue Peter-style approach – he also has published two practical guides to suicide – which has attracted the most controversy. While the seminars are only open to those over 50 or suffering from a serious disease – an hour long public meeting before each event is a way of wetting the appetite – it is impossible to rigorously vet everyone who attends.

“The mention of euthanasia often results in a knee-jerk reaction, but if we are going to talk about people being put under pressure, let’s also talk about the pressure put on people to fight on at all costs and who end up spending their last few months, years even in a chronic pain.

“Giving people information doesn’t increase the amount of premature deaths. Take someone who has cancer, who wakes up every day thinking they can’t go on. If they know that in their bathroom cabinet there is a drug that they can take that will end their lives, it actually puts them back in control. Knowing that they have a way out in many cases makes life a whole lot more bearable.”

Tom Curran, whose wife was first diagnosed with multiple sclerosis 30 years ago, is more than happy to provide testimony to the work of Exit International.

“Four years ago her condition became much worse and after a lot of soul searching she booked a place at Dignitas in Switzerland,” he says. While assisted suicide is now legal in various parts of the world, only Switzerland allows non-residents to travel there to die. “I did not want her to go and she did not want to go. She felt she had a lot of life left to live, but was worried that there may come a point where she would not longer be able to travel. It felt like go now or lose the opportunity. It was then that I decided to do some more research and found out about Exit International. Suddenly there was an alternative. “There are always consequences, but the practical knowledge we have gained has given my wife her life back. This organisation doesn’t kill people, it keeps them alive.”

Dr Nitschke, who retrained in medicine in his mid-30s, has countless stories like the Currans, but also doesn’t see why it should be restricted to the seriously ill. In his view being over 18 and of sane mind should be enough qualification.

“Four years ago, I met a women called Lisette Nigot who said to me when I am 80 I want to die. She was healthy, had a good life and there was no obvious reason why she should want to end her life, but every year I saw her she would tell me she hadn’t changed her mind. I did find that difficult to comprehend and eventually I turned to her and said, ‘Why on earth do you want to die? Why don’t you go on a world cruise or write a book?

“But you know what she said? She told me to mind my own business. She said, ‘I didn’t come to you for a sermon, I came to you for practical help and for technical knowledge’.

“That for me changed everything. She had thought about it seriously and she had come to the conclusion that 80 was the right time to die. It was her choice and that’s exactly as it should be.”

When that case hit the headlines, it led to Dr Nitschke’s books being banned in Australia and even those who share some of his thinking struggle with the idea of euthanasia being open to all. Bradford’s Debbie Purdy who has long campaigned for a clarification of Britain’s suicide laws agrees with much of Exit International’s philosophy. She agrees with him that relaxing the law does not lead to an increase in the death rate. In Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1994, she says 10,000 people seek advice about ending their life each year, but only 100 go through with it. However, Debbie, who also suffers from multiple sclerosis, finds his wholly practical approach dangerous.

“There are times when I have felt really sick, but I’ve gone to my doctors who have changed my drugs and things have got better,” she say. “If someone decides their life is unbearable then of course they should be able to find out how to do it, but they should also be told why it might not be right for them. Doctors, social workers, friends, families and neighbours all have a role to play, but the reason why Dr Nitschke has an audience in Britain is because politicians have shied away from tackling the issue. If the law had been changed, then there would be no need for his workshops.”

Judging by the turnout at the event in York, Dr Nitschke remains very much in demand.

“As you get older it’s natural that you start to think about what might happen in the future,” says Marjorie Green, who attended yesterday’s public meeting. “I am fit and healthy, but I know I might not always be and forewarned, as they say, is forearmed.”

Country backs policy in poll

Earlier this year, a referendum was held in Switzerland on the future of assisted suicide. Around 85 per cent of the 278,000 votes cast opposed a proposed ban and 78 per cent opposed outlawing it for foreigners.

Figures show about 200 people commit assisted suicide each year at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, including many foreign visitors.

Assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1941. However, there are safeguards and it has to be carried out by a non-physician with no vested interest in the death.

The Dignitas clinic was set up in 1998 and while it has not confirmed the figures, sources estimate in that time it has helped over 1,000 foreigners to take their own lives.